Le Morte d’Arthur begins with a search for an unknown king, one who, by the workings of fate, will be the only one able to pull the enchanted sword Excalibur from the stone. In this case, enchantment ensures that the true king will be properly identified, but as is often the case in Le Morte d’Arthur, trickery—magical and otherwise—also disrupts social norms and confuses more than it reveals.
Like Arthur, Sir Gareth, another knight, is also seemingly without a past as he first makes his appearance, and his several quests can be understood as an attempt to prove himself—that is, prove his true identity as an honorable, chivalrous knight (and one with noble blood). The book shows just how much many will risk in this society to prove their identity to themselves and to others. At other times, however, identity cannot be so easily pinned down—and this is especially the case among the knights, who in battle are covered with armor and only identified by their shields or “colors,” which can be easily changed. Because of the various levels of concealment at work in the kingdom, Arthur does not really know where he comes from even after being anointed king. He unknowingly sleeps with his half-sister Margawse as a result, leading to a whole host of fated complications. The tragic element of mistaken identity is also evident in Balin and Balan’s fight to the death: they both kill each other and realize only at the moment of death that they are brothers.
While mistaken identity can often be an element of tragic fate, at other times such mix-ups are a consequence of conscious trickery. The book seems to hold the view that men are particularly vulnerable to the tricks of women: Launcelot, for instance, is tricked into sleeping with Elaine of Corbin, while Merlin is tricked into being magically sealed in a cave by the woman he loves, Nimue.
With all these examples of trickery and mistaken identity, the reader is on constantly shifting ground, never quite knowing which characters are which and who means what in the book. As a kind of literary masked ball, these stories show such trickery to be entertaining, to be sure, especially as Malory’s characters often purposefully disguise themselves in order to confuse or impress others. But Malory is also writing at a tumultuous moment in English history, when the members of warring dynasties often switched sides and alliances, so Malory’s emphasis on trickery also reflects a broader insecurity with people’s identity in society.
Trickery and Mistaken Identity ThemeTracker
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur
And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:— Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.
I took none heed to your words, for the more ye said the more ye angered me, and my wrath I wrecked upon them that I had do withal. And therefore all the missaying that ye missaid me furthered me in my battle, and caused me to think to show and prove myself at the end what I was; for peradventure though I had meat in King Arthur’s kitchen, yet I might have had meat enough in other places, but all that I did for to prove and assay my friends, and that shall be known another day; and whether that I be a gentleman born or none, I let you wit, fair damosel, I have done you gentleman’s service, and peradventure better service yet will I do or I depart from you.
Sir, she said, wit you well that ye be a prisoner, and worse than ye ween; for my lady, my cousin Morgan le Fay, keepeth you here for none other intent but for to do her pleasure with you when it liketh her.
O Jesu defend me, said Alisander, from such pleasure; for I had liefer cut away my hangers than I would do her such pleasure.
For ever, said Arthur, it is a worshipful knight’s deed to help another worshipful knight when he seeth him in a great danger; for ever a worshipful man will be loath to see a worshipful man shamed; and he that is of no worship, and fareth with cowardice, never shall he show gentleness, nor no manner of goodness where he seeth a man in any danger, for then ever will a coward show no mercy; and always a good man will do ever to another man as he would be done to himself.